Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, completed around 1720 (he was 35), are thought to be a grand intellectual and musical achievement universally revered by violinists and listeners alike for their spiritual essence.
The Solo masterwork consists of three sonatas, each with four traditional slow-fast-slow-fast movements, and three partitas, each comprised of a series of dance movements. Characterized by supreme virtuosic demands, the violinist is required to play multiple stops (playing three or four strings simultaneously) to create for the listener the illusion of harmony while sustaining a single melodic line.
Though the “broken chords,” may last but a second or two, at times the listener will have the sensory perception that more than one violin is playing. To perform a recital of the richly textured Solos not only requires mastery of technical skill—they’ve been called the “Himalayas”— but unwavering endurance and concentration as well. Once these challenges are met comes the most difficult step— unlocking the emotion of the pieces from the manuscript and delivering it to the listener.
Sponsored by Performance Santa Fe, Grammy award-winner and Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” violin virtuoso, Gil Shaham, gave a brilliant, if not impeccable, performance of two Sonatas and two Partitas Dec. 1 at the Lensic Theater.
A solitary figure on stage with only his magnificent 1699 “Comtesse de Polignac” Stradivarius (an exceptionally sonorous Strad) accompanying him, sometimes smiling, often pacing back and forth on the large stage (though not distracting) Shaham performed the B Minor and C Major Sonatas and the D Minor and E Major Partitas. An undisputed Herculean feat to be sure. Interestingly, it’s basically the same program that he performed at the Lensic in 2011.
Born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1971 and raised in Israel, at the 2011 concert he mentioned that he had played these Solos for 30 years and had arrived at a place where he was reevaluating their interpretation. In particular, their tempi whereby he thought some movements in the D Minor and E Major Partitas, should be quicker than usually executed. Judging from Tuesday’s performance, it’s good to see that he’s returned to the more traditional tempi.
The program began with the introspective B Minor Sonata in which Shaham set the tenor for what we would be enjoying the rest of the evening: the flawless technique, admirable bow control, luminous clarity of sound, superb dynamics and pianissimo passages soft as an angel’s whisper. In this first work, the Fuga was stunning, where one voice became several, bringing the audience to spontaneous applause. (Regrettably, there continued a tendency to applaud between movements.) Shaham, ever gracious, gave a little smile and bowed in acknowledgement before continuing with the Andante and Allegro.
Because of the technical nature of the Solo works, there exists the danger of their sounding like exercises. There were a few moments in the evening when this was so; where Shaham did not seem engaged and appeared to be hurrying through the Solos. At one point, there was a surprising infinitesimal lapse in concentration. The hurried feeling was most evident in the D Minor Partita that was second on the program.
Shaham progressed from one movement to the next with virtually no pause in between, which I found disquieting. This could have been due to his wanting to prevent the audience from applauding after each. I recollect that he followed the same no-pause pattern in 2011. Then too, I felt it was because of the eager applause.
Yet, maybe Shaham’s intent all along has been to build momentum leading up to the great Ciaccona. When he arrived at this final movement, he modified the pace somewhat and let the drama of the extensive musical narrative—29 variations in a movement often performed as a separate entity— unfold with expressive tone color in which the glorious radiance of the Comtesse de Polignac Strad was showcased as Shaham layered clusters of tones. Finally arriving at its conclusion, he held the last somber note, and our collective breath, for an extended length of time.
The second half began with the complex C Major Sonata and its mesmerizing, unrelenting, dotted rhythm. In this Sonata the Largo was lovely, delicate and heartfelt, followed by the Allegro Assai which was dazzling with Shaham seemingly spinning the sixteenth notes into spiraling whirlpools of sound. From this point on, Shaham’s performance was at its most spectacular, ending with an inspired rendering of the E Major Partita, always a delight to hear due to its joyful and melodic nature.
Here more exhilarating playing as Shaham’s bow arm reminded me of a windmill as he superbly managed the incessant bariolage of rapid sixtheenth notes in the opening Preludio. This was followed by a stately, elegant interpretation of the Gavotte en Rondeau, the Menuets and Bourée which concluded with a spirited Gigue.
Several years ago, in Aspen, at the end of a dress rehearsal with the Aspen Festival Orchestra in which Shaham was the guest soloist, I went up and asked him, among other inquiries, (he’s a very friendly, genial, human being) why he had chosen Mozart’s second violin concerto to perform instead of the more popular, third, fourth or fifth? Smiling, he answered, “because it’s not heard often and it’s such a gem. The first is nice, too,” he added.
This time I didn’t have the opportunity to ask why he repeated the 2011 program. Maybe the answer can be found in Shaham’s words to the audience before ending with the E Major Partita. He thanked us for coming and expressed regrets that his stay in Santa Fe had been so short. (He was due in California the next morning for a rehearsal of the two Bach violin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.) He added that the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas were the “closest a violinist had to the Holy Ghost.” Possibly, because of the magnitude of this sentiment, these unaccompanied Solos need to be performed and heard more.